Film Review: Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (2019)

owbIn his 2007 book I Am A Strange Loop, scholar Douglas Hofstadter described the memory of an individual as a sort of mosaic comprised of “coarser grain” and like “blurry copies” of that person’s experiences and encounters. While the march of time contributes to the general fuzziness of memories as they become more and more distant, sentimentality might sometimes color the perceptions of reminiscences, as well. So when the opportunity emerges to chronicle the rise and demise of an influential cultural force as The Band, it’s surely a daunting challenge to wade through decades of emotion and influence to assemble a compelling and accurate depiction of the group, both as people and as a phenomenon. Thankfully, Daniel Roher and a team of producers were up for the challenge, as is evident by their 2019 film Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.

The film presents a stirring depiction of the Canadian group The Band, told mostly from the perspective of Robbie Robertson, who served as a guitarist and songwriter for the group. His recollections, told in intimate, confessional-style interviews, are complemented by accounts from his peers and fellow travelers, including blues icon Taj Mahal, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, and celebrated recording artist Bob Dylan. Dylan, who was backed by The Band from 1965 to 1967, is arguably one of the most important presences in the film (perhaps a close second to Robertson himself) as his firsthand accounts of The Band during its formative years provide invaluable texture to the stuff of rock legend. Roher’s use of archival footage in this endeavor is particularly noteworthy, offering candid and somewhat rare glimpses into the process and product of The Band at all stages of their collective and individual endeavors.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band is a rock and roll enthusiast’s dream, told in documentary style but infused with the kind of detail and pathos that lend essential credibility to its overarching narrative. Although a certain subgroup of critical viewers may lament the emphasis on Robertson’s role in the story, it is largely his accounts that ensure that the portrait of The Band that emerges through Once Were Brothers is sharp and defined so that its finer points aren’t reduced to just another fuzzy mosaic.

Inside Your Head offers a tip of the cap to Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, awarding the film four out of five golden tophats.

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Mike Bessler
February 2020

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